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After abandoning Afghanistan, Biden urgently needs clarity on Taiwan

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While the Afghanistan debacle was unfolding, the Biden administration was also grappling with the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” on defending Taiwan. Despite Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s assurance that “America’s commitment to Taiwan will remain rock-solid,” the statements of other administration officials, rather than edging toward greater clarity, are in danger of veering into strategic incoherence. 

This is how Kurt Campbell, China policy coordinator under national security adviser Jake Sullivan, responded when asked the entirely predictable question: “I believe that there are some significant downsides to the kind of what is called ‘strategic clarity.’”

Last month, a more articulate but equally confusing explanation of the administration’s position appeared in the remarks of James Moriarty, chairman of the American Institute of Taiwan, Washington’s “unofficial” State Department affiliate for Taiwan.

He addressed the Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco, an audience that had generally welcomed Trump administration actions on Taiwan. He noted that “many on Taiwan were … worried about the impact a change in U.S. administration might have on the relationship.” 

Moriarty’s assurance: “For over 40 years, every U.S. administration has noted that U.S. policy toward Taiwan is grounded in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the three Joint Communiques. …  Thus, the foundations of our relationship with Taiwan remain the same.” 

Not quite. 

The Clinton administration, closest in time to passage of the 1979 TRA, paid it the least deference as a guide to U.S.-Taiwan relations, emphasizing instead the communiques and “constructive” relations with Beijing. When China threatened Taiwan militarily in 1995 and 1996 and Washington responded with erratic carrier deployments, Chinese officials asked what the U.S. would do if China attacked Taiwan. Assistant Secretary Joseph Nye said, “We don’t know… it would depend on the circumstances.” He did not invoke the TRA.  

Nor did President Clinton mention it in 1997 when he told Voice of America, “The Taiwan question can only be settled by the Chinese themselves peacefully.” He also forgot it in Beijing in 1998 when he announced the “three nos” against Taiwan. And he ignored the TRA at the U.S. Institute of Peace in 1999, saying only, “We’ve maintained our strong, unofficial ties to a democratic Taiwan while upholding our one China policy.”

Subsequent administrations have more explicitly relied on the TRA as the basis of U.S. policy on Taiwan but uniformly focus only on one of its key security mandates: “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.” Moriarty did not quote that language, which is normally followed by reciting American weapons sold to Taiwan, because when he spoke on July 31, President Biden had approved none. 

Instead, he said, “[I]t is important that Taiwan remain committed to the changes that only it can make for itself. Taiwan must build as strong a deterrent as possible, as quickly as possible … U.S. security relations with Taiwan are about much more than arms sales.” He then criticized Taiwan’s current defense planning for “shifting back to conventional, large-scale platforms, [not] embracing quickly enough … modern, resilient, and cost-effective approaches, as well as innovative ways to employ existing capabilities.” 

Four days later, the Biden administration announced its first arms sale to Taiwan — up to $750 million in self-propelled howitzers and kits to convert projectiles into more precise GPS-guided munitions. That was Biden’s initial installment in compliance with the TRA’s arms sales mandate. But, like all prior administrations, Biden has declined to address the TRA’s other security requirement, that the United States itself “maintain the capacity … to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan — in other words, to participate directly in Taiwan’s defense. 

When Moriarty was asked whether Washington needed to dispense with ambiguity and declare that it would defend Taiwan, he warned that strategic clarity could backfire: “Such a move could ultimately be counterproductive by convincing Beijing that it had to act preemptively before conditions became even more difficult.”

This was a surprising departure from the usual rationale offered by defenders of strategic ambiguity. They tend to issue contradictory warnings that a U.S. security guarantee would encourage Taiwan either a) to move recklessly toward formal independence, or b) to abandon its own self-defense and rely entirely on the U.S. Either hasty action or passivity, it is argued, could provoke Chinese aggression, dragging America into war with China.

But now the excuse for keeping vagueness is that clarity itself would trigger China into acting while it felt it still had the military advantage. This turns the entire concept of deterrence and peace-through-strength on its head. All the defensive enhancements Moriarty advocates are also designed to make Chinese action against Taiwan “more difficult.” The new reasoning would judge them “counterproductive” and provocative. Carried to its logical conclusion, Taiwan should disarm so Beijing will relax, knowing time is on its side.

Congress, more realistically, is worried about a strategic miscalculation by China — that it will blunder into a war believing Washington will not defend Taiwan, a mistake Beijing and Pyongyang made when they invaded South Korea in 1950. Legislators have drafted the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act (TIPA) to make U.S. intent abundantly clear. TIPA “authorizes the President to use the Armed Forces to defend Taiwan against a direct attack by China’s military, a taking of Taiwan’s territory by China, or a threat that endangers the lives of civilians in Taiwan or members of Taiwan’s military.” Neither the Trump nor the Biden administrations has expressed any enthusiasm for the legislation — which itself sends a dangerous message to China.

But a second provision in the bill is more consonant with Biden’s professed multilateralism. It “directs the Department of Defense to convene an annual regional security dialogue with Taiwan and other partners to improve U.S. security relationships with countries in the Western Pacific.”  The administration may be moving incrementally in that direction through presidential meetings with Japanese and South Korean leaders and the G-7 and EU, all of which resulted in statements endorsing peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.   

Immediately after his meeting with Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga threw cold water on the idea of Japan’s military participation in a U.S. defense of Taiwan. But other Japanese officials now call for greater deterrent clarity from Washington.

The need is even more critical after Biden’s callous and calamitous abandonment of Afghanistan in stark violation of his administration’s professed commitment to human rights and multilateralism. China’s propaganda outlet, the Global Times, put this question, “Is this some kind of omen of Taiwan’s future fate?”

The need for U.S. strategic clarity has never been more urgent.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Antony Blinken Cross-Strait relations Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Political status of Taiwan Taiwan Taiwan Relations Act

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